We’re adapting to unprecedented changes in how we travel, work and shop. Our sacrifices are compensated by clearer skies and quieter roads. But are carbon emissions falling too?

During April 2020, energy demand fell to record lows in the UK, as the coronavirus lockdown caused big energy users such as schools, shops, restaurants and factories to close. Aviation has dropped by 90%. We’re using more energy at home, but overall demand has fallen by a fifth compared to a typical April.

Lower demand for electricity and the right weather conditions, means low-carbon energy sources are making up a greater proportion of the energy system than usual.

Solar energy experienced a peak, with a record 9.68GW generated on Monday 20 April, when solar met almost 30% of the UK’s electricity demands. Lots of sunny and windy periods generated more renewable energy and led to a cut in fossil fuels in the UK’s energy mix. In another record-breaking moment, Britain has gone without coal-fired power for its longest period since the Industrial Revolution. At 10th May, the coal-free streak had lasted for 30 days.

Falling energy demand means the UK’s daily CO2 emissions have gone down by 36% since the lockdown restrictions started. In the Lewes area, with its small towns and villages and little manufacturing, the biggest impact is coming from the transport sector. As more people stay at home, there’s been a 20% increase in residential CO2 emissions, but passenger vehicle use has fallen by 60%.

Across the world, demand for energy has also fallen sharply. The International Energy Agency says the world will use 6% less this year – equivalent to the entire energy demand of India. This will feed through to large falls in CO2 emissions. CO2 is expected to fall by 4-8% in 2020, getting on for 10 times more than in the 2008 global recession, and greater even than the aftermath of World War II.

But scientists warn that even these huge personal changes are not enough to halt the rise in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. Although global emissions are lower, they are continuing to accumulate, just at a slower rate. And there is the fear that as lockdown eases, society could return to its old ways and carbon emissions could bounce back, as they did after the economic recession of 2009. To keep on track to stay under 1.5C of global warming this century, the world needs cuts of at least 5% every year for the foreseeable future.

We have adapted to changed ways of life that seemed inconceivable only a few weeks ago. But personal behaviour change is clearly not enough to fix the carbon emission problem. Significant and permanent changes in how energy is generated and transmitted are needed.

Kirsten Firth
May 2020